Mack Williams: Toads, frogs and a ‘four-letter word’

  • Posted: Monday, September 1, 2014 12:55 a.m.

The other day at our science museum, a custodian excitedly told me that there have been baby frogs in the building’s lower floor.

I recently took the elevator downstairs, discovering a tiny toad sitting in front of the open elevator door. It stared, unmoving, so it was in that particular spot just by chance. If purposefully waiting for the elevator’s arrival, I’m sure when the elevator door opened, the toad would have hopped right in.

I refer to it as “toad” (terrestrial) instead of “frog” (aquatic), because I knew it to be so by virtue of my being a “gray-haired little boy.”

In 1972 (when I began graying), I saw the Ray Milland movie “Frogs.” I remember Milland sitting in a wheelchair beside an open window through which a host of frogs was leaping in to “keep him company.”

Milland screamed in terror, which made no sense! After all, what can even a million frogs do to someone, gum them to death or drown them in frog pee? (I’m sure frog urine is acidic, but nothing like the caustic saliva of the creature in the “Alien” movies.)

Maybe it was an “interconnected” fear of warts, like the school days’ “A=B=C” math problems.

Or perhaps, when Ray Milland saw those frogs hopping in, it was a Friday evening, and he said to himself: “Well, here’s another weekend, lost!”

Getting back to our museum, I scooped up the little interloper (“interhopper”) and put it in our enclosed butterfly garden. The toad can’t get out, but neither can its predators (bird, snake) enter.

The custodian had found four or five of these little “babies,” also letting them go in the butterfly garden (now approaching the status of “butterfly-toad garden”).

All of this “cold-bloodedness” brings back something from my childhood along the Old Concord Road.

One early morning, about age 5 (1956), I was exploring my back yard and forest threshold. It was always a moist, shadowy place (“shadow-unfriendly” now, due to logging), with all kinds of fungi, especially “toadstools.”

Surprisingly, I never saw a single toad take a break on that naturally-provided “furniture,” so-named by man in its honor.

From there, a toad could have surveyed his domain and contemplated his lot in this life; but probably not, since toads, like some people, are not very introspective.

Even in that “toad heaven,” I couldn’t believe how many I was finding. In the movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” the escapees find a “whole gopher village” which they are roasting, shish kabob-style on sticks. Perhaps I had found a “whole toad village” during those early, sunlit, 1950s, backyard hours.

Collecting them, my pants and shirt pockets soon became “toad-filled,” equaling upwards of a dozen.

My father was asleep in his bed, having not long returned from third-shift work at the Spencer yard. Being a light sleeper, he wasn’t sound asleep.

I carefully opened the door, entered, emptied my pockets and left, quietly closing the door.

I considered this a good trick to play on my father. He had given me whippings for bad behavior, but never for something humor-related, since he had a well-developed sense of humor himself.

My father’s light sleep contributed to the trick’s playing, with him being easily awakened by “thumping” noises on the floor. If some of the toads’ trajectories landed them in his bed, he may have rolled over onto a “cold clump.”

Just now, I realize that if I had only given some childhood thought to the trajectories of hopping toads in that time of Sputnik-paranoia-inspired science emphasis, and displayed a proclivity for their mathematical calculation, my life could have been different! I might have later had a career with NASA, or perhaps the Department of Defense, culminating with the publication of my “Principia Toadaeam (not to be confused with “Te Deum”) Trajectorae,” in the tradition of Newton, Einstein and Hawking (although of much narrower, but sometimes “lengthy” subject matter). I guess it’s too late for all of that now, though.

When my father realized what was happening, he immediately knew the source!

He sometimes used four-letter words, but always those of the “D” or “S” variety, never of the “F.”

That morning, in which his bedroom itself almost seemed to hop, my father hollered out the “four-letter word” most appropriate to the situation.

From his bed, he yelled: “Mack!”

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